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Buddhist-Christian Studies 25 (2005) 29-40

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Religious Identity and Openness to a Pluralistic World:

A Christian View

Pacific School of Religion

It is often assumed by Christians that religious identity and openness to a pluralistic world are in opposition to each other. Those with a strong sense of their Christian identity necessarily affirm this identity as exclusive of other religions. Strong Christian identity means knowing that Christianity alone is the true religion and other religions are false, or at least defective. By contrast, the more one is open to the possibility of truth in other religions, the weaker one's own Christian identity becomes. Accepting truth in other religions means "watering down" one's sense of the truth of one's own faith, accepting a normless "liberalism" in which "anything goes" and "everyone has a right to their own opinion."

I would like to argue in this paper that this opposition between Christian identity and openness to a pluralistic world has to do with a certain construction of Christian identity. It is possible to construct Christian identity in a different way that both clarifies norms of what is authentic Christianity and affirms other religious paths, not in opposition to each other or as a vague compromise between the two, but in mutual affirmation. The more one is clear about what is normative for one as a Christian, the more one can also open to the truth in other religious perspectives. Getting to know and understand others also means knowing and clarifying better what is essential for one's own faith.

This does not mean that every opinion is equally true, whether about one's own faith or that of others. There are patterns of religious affirmation that are life-giving and some others that are death-dealing. Clarifying the norms of one's own religious identity also means developing criteria for discerning what is life-giving and what is death-dealing, and being willing to affirm the former even as one rejects the latter. This critique of "bad" religion needs to be carried out within each religion as a self-critique.

I may suspect that there are ways of defining oneself as a Jew or as a Muslim that are death-dealing to others: for example, the religious perspective of the settler movement in Israel-Palestine that believes that the duty to settle all of the land of Israel means "cleansing it" of gentile unbelievers, that is, Palestinians who "pollute" the land or Muslim fundamentalists, such as the Taliban, who believe that faithfulness to the [End Page 29] Q'uran means repressing the legal and educational rights of women. But without deep roots in each of these religious traditions, such judgments remain superficial.

The primary responsibility for sorting out the life-giving from the death-dealing tendencies in religions lies in a process of critical discerning within each religion. As critics in each religion carry out their own work of discernment, they are likely also to find themselves drawing closer in ecumenical relationships to such critics in others' religious traditions, but without confusing the distinctive work that each needs to do in relation to their own community. For example, I can agree with and support the work of a Jewish liberation theologian such as Marc Ellis in his critique of the abuse of Jewish Holocaust theology to justify unjust power, but I cannot do that work in his place. My job is to critique the death-dealing elements in Christianity in a way that complements his work as an internal critique of contemporary Judaism.

In this paper I wish to discuss both sides of this dialectic, both the steps by which Christianity can see itself in its own distinctiveness in a way that is affirming of truth in other religious traditions and the way this discernment of what are the core values of Christianity calls for an clarification of what is life-giving and what is death-dealing in the interpretation of its own tradition. I will begin by a discussion of the first...


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